Ultra sensitive experiments carried by space scientists could pave the way to cutting edge approach in treating and preventing infectious diseases.
For instance, Cheryl Nickerson, microbiologist at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, based at the ISS hundreds of miles above the earth, is investigating the effects of micro-gravity on disease-causing pathogens.
"We seek to unveil novel cellular and molecular mechanisms related to infectious disease progression that cannot be observed here on Earth, and to translate our findings to novel strategies for treatment and prevention," said Nickerson, according to an Arizona statement.
During an earlier series of NASA space shuttle and ground-based experiments, Nickerson and her team discovered that spaceflight culture increased the disease-causing potential (virulence) of the food borne pathogen Salmonella.
Yet many of the genes known to be important for its virulence were not turned on and off as expected when this organism is grown on Earth.
Understanding how this switching is regulated may be useful for designing targeted strategies to prevent infection.
For NASA, Nickerson's findings were revelatory, given their implications for the health of astronauts on extended spaceflight missions.
Already faced with the potential for compromised immunity induced by the rigors of space travel, astronauts may have to further contend with the threat of disease-causing microbes with amped-up infectious abilities.
"There are conditions that are encountered by pathogens during the infection process in the human body that are relevant to conditions that these same organisms experience when cultured in spaceflight," said Nickerson.
"By studying the effect of spaceflight on the disease-causing potential of major pathogens like Salmonella, we may be able to provide insight into infectious disease mechanisms that cannot be attained using traditional experimental approaches on Earth, where gravity can mask key cellular responses."
Nickerson presented her findings at the 2013 annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Boston, Massachussets.